Doctor’s Note: Hey NerdLovers! It’s a new year and I want to help start 2021 off on a positive note. So I want to hear from you: what are some of your relationship wins? How have you improved your personal life, your friendships or your romantic relationships? What are some of the ways you’ve made your life better recently? Let’s share some hope, some positivity and success to help inspire folks to achieve their own victories.
Send your success stories to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject header “relationship wins”; maybe you’ll see your success story in a future column.
You probably get a hundred or more messages a day like this, but I thought I’d drop you a line and see what you might have to say. I broke out the laptop to type this, but I’ll try to keep it novella length rather than a novel, haha
As the subject might suggest, I can’t seem to form a relationship to save my life. A bit of background about myself so that you can get a sort of thumbnail sketch. I’m college educated, have a decent (not spectacular or flashy or anything, but important) job in the healthcare field, and own my own home. As you probably guessed, I’m a nerd. I like to game, watch horror movies, and read books. I write fantasy and horror for fun, and am current working on a fantasy trilogy. Not sure if I’ll publish yet, since that is a whole ‘nother can of worms in itself.
As you might also guess, I’m pretty introverted. I can be gregarious and friendly to people, particularly at work, and I’m well liked among my coworkers. Outside of work, I’m more of a homebody and have a small, close circle of mostly online friends. Some of this is just because people moved, some of it is because I’ve shed friends who just faded away, or in one case a friend who I’ve had to cut off because they showed themselves to be a terrible person.
The picture I’m trying to paint here is of a pretty normal dude. I used to be very much in the Nice Guy head space, but I’ve managed to escape it. I don’t feel like I’m owed a relationship or anything, I just feel like I lack whatever it is that sparks chemistry in people. I can get dates, but it’s rare that anything goes beyond the second meet up. Meeting me in person seems to be the kiss of death, and that’s a confidence killer. I’ve vibed with people overseas, but I’ve never tried to pursue anything because I’m like “Well yeah they’re going to get here, meet me in person, and be like ‘pass.'” I’m way more entertaining online, apparently.
Earlier this year, I reconnected with someone I’d met a few years before. We didn’t meet the first time around. We met in person the night before we’d planned to go on an actual date. She texted me to come over and hang out with her in her back yard a bit since she was hanging out outside. We had a pretty normal convo, no real red flags or anything, we kissed good night and by the time I got home I got a “I don’t think we’re compatible” text and was blocked. No idea what I did.
I actually have had a couple of girlfriends over the years. Apparently you can capture lightning in a bottle twice, haha. But anyway, my ex dumped me about six years ago after being together for eight months, using the excuse that she “wasn’t over her ex.” It isn’t like she was the “one who got away” exactly, but that particular lesson has stuck with me. They can always leave, don’t get too attached. It makes it a bit difficult to really allow myself to get attached to people, as you might guess. Yes, I’ve spoken to a therapist on the matter. I don’t feel like it helped much, although she was helpful on other matters.
So what are your thoughts? I have no idea what I’m doing wrong. I think maybe I’m just…really boring. Or it’s because I run on a pretty even keel and people take that to mean I don’t care when it’s just that…I’m not very emotive. Not sure, but whatever the case may be, it’s getting exhausting. I keep plugging along. with the pandemic obviously it hasn’t been a good idea to meet up, but with the vaccine being distributed we’ll hopefully be back to normal soon. I just want to make my “new normal” better than the old one, particularly in this area.
Lonely in The Buckeye State
I’m gonna be honest, LITBS: you basically answered your own question several times over. You seem to be pretty aware of what’s going on. The problem is that most of the time, you’re not actually learning the right lessons from what you’ve been learning.
Your ex is a good example of this. The lesson of her leaving because “she wasn’t over her ex” isn’t “they can always leave, don’t get too attached.” That mentality isn’t actually helpful, either for finding and maintaining relationships, or even for protecting yourself emotionally. Telling yourself “hey, they can always leave” is more about emotional self-harm than it is about not over-investing in someone. When you take the idea of “don’t get attached because they can always dump you”, all you’re doing is setting up a self-reinforcing cycle that all but guarantees that you aren’t going to be able to connect with folks.
Here’s how that works. First, you’re creating a self-limiting belief; you’re telling yourself that women won’t want to stay in a relationship with you because you aren’t “worthy”, somehow. That’s where that “they can always leave” part comes from. It’s not an acknowledgement that all relationships end until one doesn’t, it’s telling you that everyone you date is going to leave you inevitably. That’s a great way to make it nearly impossible to actually make a connection with someone. Since you believe that women will just leave, you don’t bother looking for chances to meet people, flirt with them or build something together. When you do meet them, you are far less likely to actually put the effort in because in the back of your mind, you’ve already convinced yourself that it’s pointless. And even if you do go on dates or start something more serious, there’s going to be that part of you that keeps holding back because hey, don’t get attached, they’re just going to leave you.
Attitude is destiny when it comes to dating, my dude. The pessimist and the optimist are both right. The difference is why the optimist has more success. The person with the positive attitude tends to be on the lookout for opportunities to meet people or start conversations. When they do see an opportunity, they’re more likely to take full advantage of it, rather than half-assing it. And when things don’t work out — which happens to everyone, no matter who you are — they’re better able to bounce back, because they don’t take that setback as universal and unchangeable. They don’t see it as “well, this proves it will never work”, they see it as “things didn’t work this time, with this specific person. But I can try again and I can do better next time.” That gives them the emotional resilience it takes to succeed — in the short term and the long term.
That’s why the lesson with your ex isn’t “they can always leave”, it was “ok, she and I weren’t right for each other.” The former is a form of catastrophizing. The latter reminds you that this setback is temporary and impersonal.
That’s a definite part of what’s informing the problems you’re having connecting with people. But there’s a couple other issues too.
The first is that yes, if you’re not that expressive or that emotive, people aren’t going to really click with you. Part of this is clearly because you don’t believe that folks could like you and so you shouldn’t get attached. That goes a long way towards not putting yourself out there emotionally. After all, why express interest or passion if all that’s going to happen is that they’re going to say “thanks, but no thanks”. But the truth is that there are few things less attractive than a blank beige wall. If someone is putting effort out, talking about things that they love or getting excited about something and the person they talk to tends to be flat and unreactive, that comes off as bored or not interested at best. At worst, it comes off as dismissive or like you’re looking down on them. Nobody likes to throw emotional effort down a hole and get nothing back. Similarly, if you aren’t giving any indication that you have things in your life that are exciting or that you’re passionate about… well, that’s going to tell them a lot about you and make them decide that maybe you and they aren’t compatible.
Because to be perfectly blunt: yeah, it sounds like you’re a little boring, man. It doesn’t sound like you have much of a life. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with being a homebody, the issue is that you don’t do much. Most of what you do sounds pretty solitary and, if I can be blunt, a little passive. Most of the stuff you describe about your off-work time is more about consumption — playing games, watching movies, and so on. And hey, I get it; I’m a voracious reader and we’re not going to talk about the amount of time I’ve put into Animal Crossing or Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla this year. But your lifestyle doesn’t lend itself to meeting people or connecting with folks. Most of your life seems to be solitary; even your social circle is primarily online. And look, fair’s fair: we’re still in the middle of the COVID pandemic, which means that in-person socializing his restricted as hell. But that doesn’t mean that you don’t have the opportunity to be more proactive in building a life.
The thing is: you already know this and you know that you don’t have to be like this. You’re gregarious and well liked at work. Your online self is exciting and vibrant. But you don’t seem to bring that same energy to people in person. And there’s really no reason for that. Despite what shitty edgelords will insist, you’re not a fundamentally different person just because you’re behind a screen. There’s no reason why you can’t be the same gregarious person you are at work or online when you meet folks in person. The only difference is that you’ve already decided that things are going to fail.
If you want your new normal to be different, that’s ultimately what you need to do; you need to learn to start bringing that gregariousness and energy that you have at work and online into your personal relationships. And that includes finding ways of being more social and developing your lifestyle. Organize get-togethers with your friends, setting up events like, say, an old-school couch-co-op game night or barbecue. Find ways to enjoy your passions and interests that bring you in contact with other people. There’re author support groups that meet online (and in person, when, y’know, we’re not in a global pandemic). There are conventions and MeetUps and tournaments. Building an interesting and exciting life that brings people in doesn’t mean becoming a different person, it just means embracing the person you are and letting them exist for more than just the hours you’re at work.
And, importantly: you have to let yourself care and get attached. Detachment doesn’t protect you from being hurt, it makes it impossible to find the relationship you want. Yes, partners can leave and relationships end. That doesn’t mean that you’re going to be lonely or that you’re a failure. Sometimes relationships end because you were better as friends than as lovers. Sometimes relationships end because you weren’t in the right place in your life to date that person — or at all. And sometimes relationships end because hey, that person just wasn’t the right one for you. But there’s no reward without risk. That means going into dating with the attitude that this might be your next great adventure. If you’re going to find love, you have to be open to receiving it.
Hey Doc, I have a relationship win for you.
I wrote you a few years back about being intimidating to guys and how frustrating it was, and how I wanted to stay true to my inner Wonder Woman without severing any chance of having a relationship. Your response was, in short, that I shouldn’t diminish my awesomeness for the sake of being in a relationship, and when I finally find a guy who’s not intimidated by a successful woman it’ll be worth it. Well, it’s worth it! I met Mike, who is totally turned on by my strength & independence and not intimidated by it at all. One of his favorite things is to have dinner ready when I get home from the hospital, to listen to my stories, and to prop me up and be supportive. He is so much more secure in his masculinity than anyone I’ve ever dated, and I think that’s the reason he’s not put off by our eschewing traditional gender roles. In any case, I really want to thank you for the advice. I’m so glad I didn’t try to shrink into a box to fit someone else’s standards, and I have the best relationship of my life now because of it.
Thanks for writing in and letting us know how you’re doing, TS! Congratulations on your relationship win!